Where justice, recovery begins for young victims of abuse

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It is always painful for a child to recall and articulate abuse. Having to recount it repeatedly - at times enclosed within the intimidating walls of a police station - adds another layer of trauma.

SafeSpot in Fairfax City is a place where children who have suffered sexual or severe physical abuse can tell their story and receive support in a welcoming, soothing and child-friendly environment.

As one of Virginia's 15 children's advocacy centers, SafeSpot brings representatives from law enforcement, child protective services, the courts, mental health and medical services to the child.

"This is a centralized space where children can explain their abuse just once," said Michele Thames, executive director of SafeSpot and a parishioner of Holy Spirit Church in Annandale.

SafeSpot opened last February, but to help more young victims it moved to a new Fairfax location in August, nearly tripling its size. Focusing on Fairfax County, the center also serves military families as well as other jurisdictions when space is available.

At an open house Nov. 5, employees from diocesan Catholic Charities, the Office of Child Protection and Safety, and the Victim Assistance Office learned more about the nonprofit, which they all plan to use as a resource in their respective ministries.

Although the Victim Assistance Office deals primarily with adults who were abused in the past, they have received calls from adults reporting the abuse of minors.

Catholic Charities encounters cases of child abuse in its outreach programs, especially in its counseling work, and SafeSpot will be "a great referral source," said Catherine Hassinger, director of Catholic Charities' Community Services, who attended the open house.

According to the National Children's Advocacy Center, up to 16 percent of children are abused physically each year. The youngest children are the most vulnerable. Nearly 30 percent of victims are younger than 3 years old, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Children's Bureau. Les Anderson, a Fairfax County Police detective, said he's interviewed children as young as 2 and a half years old.

"Abuse knows no barriers," said Thames. "It cuts across race, religion and income."

Fairfax County, the fourth wealthiest county in the country, is not immune from child abuse. Last year, more than 2,200 cases were referred to Fairfax County's Child Protective Services. Most abusers are someone the child knows, loves and trusts.

Before Fairfax County had a children's advocacy center, children bounced from place to place to be interviewed by CPS, nurses, therapists and law enforcement officers. The latter interviews took place "in a cold, scary room" in the police station, said Anderson.

Now young victims - ranging from 3 to 18 years old - enter SafeSpot's bright and cheerful rooms. Soft greens and blues accent the downtown Fairfax office, and walls are painted with colorful birds perched on fanciful trees and quotes from Dr. Seuss and A. A. Milne.

The center even has a four-pawed presence to help make the children more comfortable. Pecos, a yellow lab-retriever mix with large brown eyes, is the center's facility dog. Provided by Canine Companions for Independence, he "offers comfort and stress reduction to children, families, staff and multidisciplinary team members," said Thames. He accompanies children in forensic interviews, therapy sessions and in court proceedings.

The core of SafeSpot's work is the forensic interview, which allows a multidisciplinary team to help the child receive appropriate services and to determine if a criminal case is warranted.

When law enforcement or CPS receives information about suspected abuse, they contact SafeSpot, where a child is brought and the team gathers. One of two forensic interview specialists speaks with the child as the team views the videotaped interview from a separate room. The videotape is considered evidence if a criminal investigation is opened.

Forensic interviewers receive specialized training and have a background that includes social work, criminal justice and psychology. They also have an understanding of child development.

The goal "is to obtain the most accurate information in the most child-friendly way," said Maria Bonilla, SafeSpot forensic interview specialist.

The interview is not therapy but information gathering, a process that is "quite different when working with children than adults," Thames said. An adult "can answer who, what, where, why, when, but not a 4-year-old."

Some children have been told by abusers that if they reveal the abuse they'll go to jail, said Thames. So part of the challenge is getting them to open up.

If a child becomes too distressed, an interview is postponed. "They may need therapy or healing to take place before they can go on," Bonilla said.

SafeSpot provides free trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, a model shown to be effective in treating sexually abused children, said Thames. Through a partnership with Inova Fairfax, children may receive a forensic medical exam at the hospital.

For the non-offending caregiver, SafeSpot offers family advocacy, which includes referrals to counseling services, legal assistance and housing help.

Thames hopes SafeSpot, which assisted 300 children last year, eventually can offer additional services on-site and help more children.

Attending the open house, Deacon Marques Silva, director of the Office of Child Protection and Safety, said his office receives calls from parents asking for referrals, and he's grateful to recommend a place like SafeSpot, "where the dignity and the particular developmental needs of children are acknowledged and protected."

"Abuse happens every day, everywhere," said Thames. "SafeSpot," added Deacon Silva, "is where justice and healing can begin."

How to help

To donate to SafeSpot Children's Advocacy Center of Fairfax, go here, or mail a check to SafeSpot Children's Advocacy Center of Fairfax, P.O. Box 148, Fairfax, VA 22038.

To report abuse

If you suspect a child is the victim of abuse, call the Virginia Child Protective Services hotline, 1-800-552-7096; or call diocesan Catholic Charities' Family Services North, 703/224-1630, or Family Services South, 540/371-1124.

Signs of sexual abuse

Most children who come to SafeSpot have been sexually abused; 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18, according to the National Children's Advocacy Center.

While not necessarily indicating abuse is happening, some red flags include:

- behavior changes

- running away

- sexually transmitted disease

- pregnancy

- sexual behavior inappropriate for age

- unexplained bruises

- depression

- reporting abuse by parent or other caregiver

(Sources: Child Welfare Information Gateway and SafeSpot)

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015